October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
Apparently, even the best consensual social construct has a shelf life of no more than five centuries. Human systems of meaning only last so long. We all agreed the world was flat, for example, and the construct served us well enough, until, with the shenanigans of Columbus et al., that belief reached the end of what a flat-earth construct could explain. Religion is no exception. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle depicts this five hundred–year cycle of religious change. Every half-century, the system needs reconfiguring. “Re-formation,” Tickle calls it.
Begin with the Great Transformation (the time of Jesus up to 500 CE); move ahead and find Gregory the Great and the Fall of Rome; onward to the Great Schism, when Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted ways. Another half-century and you have the Great Reformation—it was 1517 when Luther allegedly nailed his theses to the door at Wittenberg. One more five-hundred-year leap brings “re-form” to Christianity once more. According to Tickle, we live in a time of monumental change—the Great Emergence.
This race through the centuries leaves the reader breathless. Reduced Shakespeare might do it as “History of the Christian Church, abridged.” Tickle, however, unlike the comedy group, is brilliant when she is reductive. Her concise review of the past two thousand years gathers lessons from history, interprets them through lenses of religion and social science, and turns out a theoretical explication of current upheaval in the church and in the world.
There are three essential questions, says Tickle. Each time of re-formation “[. . .] has the same central question: Where, now, is the authority?” Once it rested on the Pope; later, on the inerrancy of scriptures, or sola scriptura.
The second question that is present in every great upheaval asks what it means to be human—what is human consciousness? Not so long ago, landowners asked, “Are slaves human?”
And lastly, “What is the relation of religions to one another?” The Crusades, for example, were based on the idea that Islam was a mortal enemy.
“Religion can [. . .] be described as a kind of cable [. . .] that keeps the human social unit connected to some purpose and/or power greater than itself.” Central to understanding Tickle’s thesis is this image of a Holy Tether, or “cable of meaning,” which keeps human community in touch with a larger meaning. Josh Brown, co-creator of the Nick and Josh Podcast, illustrates this cable of meaning as a braided, mesh-encased, waterproof cable, mooring a small boat to a small pier.
This image makes an abstract anatomy of meaning accessible. The inner cable is composed of three strands: spirituality (internal values and beliefs), corporeality (physical evidence of a religion in place), and morality (external, enacted values and beliefs.) These strands are braided and cased in a flexible mesh that represents the common imagination. The shared community story, or waterproof covering, protects the mesh and inner braid. “And so,” writes Tickle, “all is well with the cable until [. . .] that fateful time, about once every five hundred years, when the outer casing [. . .] and the inner sleeve [. . . .] take a blow simultaneously. When that happens, a hole is opened straight through to the braid [. . . and] the water rushes in.”
In remarks at an Episcopal retreat in Virginia last October, Tickle spoke about “blows to our existing cable.” She cited the “race for space” and the resultant moon walk as a fatal blow to our confidence in the inerrancy of scripture, recalling the day the papers headlined, “Footsteps on the Moon!” A man in her town cautioned Tickle not to take the news story seriously. “It says in the Bible,” he explained, “the moon is God’s footstool. If they really landed there, they would have seen God’s feet.” She also pointed to the Scopes trial and Darwinism as events that challenged us to re-form our basic understanding of what it is to be human: “We are made in the image of God; we are descended from monkeys; ergo, God is a monkey!” In The Great Emergence, Tickle goes on to discuss a fascinating series of blows to the cable of meaning, from Einstein and quantum physics to the family car, Alcoholics Anonymous, the drug culture, immigration, and the reconfigured family.
The last section of The Great Emergence revolves around another visual image, “the quadrilateral,” a four-box square that divides North American Christians into Liturgicals, Social Justice Christians, Renewalists, and Conservatives. Here Tickle describes a gathering force of change, young people and the young at heart—“some with white hair,” she adds — who are in conversation with their peers, stepping outside denominational boundaries, sharing their faith communities, and moving along to form emerging churches. This discussion leads her, in closing, to discuss emerging/emergent churches.
There have been critics. Book reviewers have complained that Tickle ends the book too soon, leaving the reader without much to know about what to expect. Pastor Chuck Warnock, in a review posted both on Amazon and in his blog, notes: “But, while Tickle’s insights and examples provide clues to the transformative forces in our culture and society, the book disappoints when we arrive at the present. Tickle sees all denominations, all churches, all movements in the quadrant of Christianity— [. . .] conservative, liturgical, renewalist, and social justice—as converging toward the center [. . . .] I’m not sure that is happening.”
The truth is, we don’t know what to expect. Nor do we know what, exactly, is in motion among the emergent churches. “The Great Emergence” is, as Brian McLaren reminds us, “a conversation,” not a blueprint.
1. Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 72-73.
2. Ibid., 34-35.
3. Justin Banger, “Cable of Meaning” illustration, The Nick and Josh Podcast, http://thenickandjoshpodcast.com, 2007. Used with permission.
4. Tickle, The Great Emergence, 37.
5. Tickle, in person, October 28, 2008.
7. Chuck Warnock, “Review: The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle,” Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor, posted September 26, 2008, http://chuckwarnockblog.wordpress.com/.
8. Brian McLaren, book cover blurb to The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, by Phyllis Tickle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).
Lynn Dean Hunter
Reviewer Lynn Dean Hunter writes and teaches in Virginia. She is a lector in the Episcopal Church and a recovering religious studies major.
Phyllis Tickle, the author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, was founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly, and as such, was largely responsible for bringing spiritual discussion back to mainstream publishing. Her many books include Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime, Prayer Is a Place, and The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord, a book that answers the question, “What would happen if you took just the words of Jesus from the New Testament, just what He said, and then wrote something about them?”a Tickle lives in Memphis, where she is a lay Eucharistic minister to the gay and lesbian community. Her Sunday blog can be found at http://explorefaith.org/resources/blog/phyllis_tickles_first_sundays/index.php.